Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Brewing History: Irish Red Ale Part II - All in the Malt?

In part one of this trilogy on red ales in Ireland I focussed on the ancient and often repeated mentions of its name that seem to be the lead-in to almost every chapter of every book written about Irish brewing history. It would be wrong to say I proved or disproved that such a beverage existed but I certainly did enough to make us question parts of the tales that were told and retold before being recorded, and I queried the actual words and language used. I concluded that Irish-made red ales probably did exist as part of a group of many other alcoholic drinks but that it certainly was not the only beverages produced here in ancient times.

In this part I will be back on somewhat firmer territory, as I explore reddish coloured Irish ales from the slightly better recorded past of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, where at least we can look at written records and mentions of that time and interpret them in a much more meaningful way than we are able to do from old manuscripts.

In many ways this is of course a pointless exercise given that ‘Irish Red Ale’ in upper-case letters is such a relatively new term and these newer recipes cannot be exactly the same as any historical versions, but given that an invented version of our older ale brewing history has been sucked into the vacuum created by the lack of knowledge and reporting of what was actually brewed by Irish brewers back beyond the 1960s, I think it justifies probing into that lost world of Irish beer history.

Similarly, the knee-jerk reaction that we never had any red ales prior to that time needs to also be addressed, as even by accident we surely brewed a few red ales during the last few centuries? This of course is a bit of an assumption too, so let us explore what we know about red ales in socially recorded history and other sources from the above-mentioned period in Ireland ... but let us look at it as a search for a uniquely Irish and malt-focussed red coloured ale, instead of making assumptions that no such product existed.

A quick online search for the mention of the words ‘Red Ale’ in relation to Ireland only throws up those ancient mentions that were discussed in the last post, or later references that will relate to the next one. (Apart from a 16th century mention where it is used as an attribute along with other negative words such as ‘ropye’ and ‘longe’, and this may explain its lack of use as a descriptor, as that word obviously had some unwholesome connotations for a time.) Instead we need to look at words which could be interpreted as red coloured beers and the best word for this is probably ‘Amber’ - and I know exactly what you are thinking, that I am trying to shoe-horn mentions I have found for the colour of beer into my warped narrative to justify my reasoning, and to a certain degree I am, but please bear with me for a little longer as I explain - and back up - my thinking.

Firstly, unlike the older period of language that I discussed in the previous post, here we are dealing with a period when there was an explosion of words to describe colour, probably helped by the increased appreciation of poetry and song, and the sheer increase in volume and availability of books and other publications. So why would we not start using russet, amber and other words to describe tints and shades of a reddish nature?

Secondly, if the term red ale was being classed as a negative attribute, then surely it would be ludicrous to attach it to your beer when advertised or described? That term may have drifted on in brewing circles beyond the 16th century mention above.

Thirdly it could be down to marketing, as words like amber sounds much more appealing than plain old 'red' ale anyway - it is not a descriptor that any advertiser would have selected for a beer. Selling a beer in a packed marketplace of other breweries was a difficult job, so every advantage was needed including using the best sales pitch, and if the term 'Amber Ale' became the norm than all brewers would use it surely?

They next issue of course is the that to many people amber is not quite red, but colour is subjective as we know and even the modern ‘Irish Red Ale’ is not actually red - its shade varies and it could certainly be compared to some darker shaded variations of what we call amber. (The colour purple is the best example I know where people rarely get the shade - or often the basic colour - right. If asked to pick out a purple object many people will pick out every shade from mauve to blue to even burgundy and tell you it is purple, and many other colours are similar - certainly amber is one of those.) The real problem with that ‘Red’ moniker for ale is that none of us would really use that word to describe the shade of those modern beers would we? They are much closer to deep amber, russet perhaps, or dark ginger than they are to a red so why do we think that colour name would have been used in the past? Another important point is that amber and red still seem quite interchangeable in beers nowadays as colour descriptors, so our perceptions are still quite fluid.

But I love facts and science so I found this reference in a scientific book from 1757 by John Rutty called ‘A Methodical Synopsis of Mineral Waters’1 where he discusses the effect of minerals on colour and mentions his choice of descriptors for those colours. This is what he says about amber and ale…

‘In the description of certain colours arising on some mixtures, the words amber and brown amber may be thought to be less definite than those of high-coloured beer, which, viz, a reddish brown, was generally intended by the term amber or brown amber.’

So he used the term ‘high-coloured beer’ as a descriptor for a reddish brown colour, and by my interpretation the term amber was used to describe that beer colour. Reddish brown? That certainly seems to be the shade we are looking for here. Just to be clear, this book was not an Irish book, it was printed in London but is still a fair example of the interpretation of beer colour. (It is also worth pointing out that other countries had 'red' or amber ales too of course, but we are just dealing with Ireland here for obvious reasons.)

In the 19th century in particular there are quite a few references to the amber ales and many seem to be using this term, perhaps to differentiate themselves from porters, and probably also from Irish pale ales. If we look at an example from Lane’s brewery in Cork from a previous post we see that in 1843 they were brewing ‘Extra Stout and Bottled Porter, East India Pale, XX and Amber Ales’ so we can see a clear differentiation between their Pale and XX, and their Amber ale.

There is also a very nice mention of an amber coloured beer from 1856 in another previous post that showed how Lady’s Well Brewery (Murphy’s), also in Cork, started its life not wholly as a porter brewery but as a producer of a wide variety of beer in the hope of becoming an Irish competitor and exporter akin to Bass, Allsopp, etc., and their beers included a ‘Lady’s Well Ale’ that was described as having ‘a clear, amber colour’.

Somewhat ironically, Smithwick’s in Kilkenny also had an amber ale, as a visitor to the brewery in 1876 sampled ‘October ales, eleven months old and clear as amber’. So it is with a little fanfare we can say that this famous Kilkenny brewery did indeed have a reddish ale back then along with their other beers, although it appears to have been a far cry from the present iteration - more on this in the final part of this trilogy.

Again, I know that these mentions would hardly be surprising if we were looking at brewing in a general all-world context but with the focus of many of the world’s beer and travel writers firmly set on Ireland’s porter history, it is good to repeat and reinforce our much-more-than-that brewing aptitude that tends to get lost in the noise of brewing fakelore. (The alternative reason for much of my writing is not only to attempt to pull fact from fiction red ale wise, but also to show off any styles I come across that are currently not associated with that blinkered brewing history, be it Milds, Pale Ales, Imperial Ales or in this case Amber Ales.)

And those mentions above are not outliers, as newspaper mentions over the centuries mention many more ‘Amber Ales’, for example:

Saunder’s Newsletter in October 1784 printed an editorial of general complaints about issues in Dublin city and one sentence reads, ‘That fine and elegant amber ale, for which this city, forty years ago, was so remarkable, is no longer to be had; but in its stead, a wretched, ill brewed compound possessing every ill quality a malt liquor can have.’

Michael Lowry on Meath Street in Dublin was brewing ‘an Amber Beer of superior quality’ in 1795, again according to an advertisement in Saunder’s Newsletter in February of that year.

In October of 1805 again from Saunder’s Newsletter, the proprietor of the brewery at 48 Mecklenburgh Street in Dublin was brewing ‘Amber Ale, Pale Ale, superior strong Porter, and excellent Table Beer.’

In 1907 according to an advertisement in the Dundalk Examiner the Great Northern Brewery - in Dundalk - were brewing ‘single porter; XX bottling stout; amber ale; and strong ale.’ Indeed that same brewery advertised its Amber Ale quite strongly early in the 20th century, with one newspaper advertisement showing photograph-like images of a glass of that Amber Ale for 1938 that shows it to be quite dark - certainly not a ‘golden’ type of amber. (We should also note that this brings us a generation away from the third age of Irish Red Ales in the 1960s, and although I possess a label for this beer, I am unsure when exactly it ceased to be, but Smithwick’s bought the brewery in the 1950s and Smithwick’s was brewed here later on in the brand’s life under Guinness's tenure.)

(Interestingly or not - I can find no mention in print of a famous cousin of amber ale and that is the 'Ruby Ale' brewed by Lett’s Mill Park brewery in Enniscorthy - the only thing I can see is that much repeated label. I do not doubt that it existed but it must have been sold by word of mouth as very few advertisements for Lett’s ales in general seem to exist.)

What any of these beers would be categorised taste-wise is not something I can say for definite, but from the scant descriptions they seem to have had a little bitterness on the hop front, so perhaps like a dark coloured pale ale? Although in reality I would suspect that these beers I referenced were quite different from one another.

But all of this is very ambiguous still - although I am convinced enough that there were look-a-like if not taste-a-like red ales in this period - and the complete absence of the actual word ‘red’ in some way up to this point probably has you thinking that I am yet again clutching at ale-soaked straws to justify my stance, but let me share something else that might just make you into a believer that some of these ales were indeed ‘red’ in colour, at least by modern style standards, and see if we can add a certain maltiness to our ale ...

By chance I recently came across a very interesting book that was published 1872 with instructions on brewing Irish porter and stout - and I need to do a separate full post on this book itself, as it gives detailed recipes for Irish dark beers and how to brew them as well as the workings of Irish porter breweries at this time. The book also lists the usual ingredients such as hops and water, but it was a chapter on malts that caught my eye. In it the anonymous writer - who appears to be an eminent journeyman brewer - talks about a specific ‘pale’ malt that was used by Irish brewers as a base malt for their porters. The author of the piece describes the malt thus:

‘The usual kind of malt employed in brewing Irish porter is of a darker colour than what is generally used by English Brewers’… ‘which in flavour and colour resemble a malt nearly approaching dark amber, but not quite’ 

The writer states that this is still called a 'pale' malt as it is pale relative to the other much darker malt used for the making of porter, and he goes on to state that the malt has…

‘A very sweet and pleasant flavour and the farina of the malt has rather a brownish tinge. This gradual slight charring develops also a peculiar and agreeable bitter taste, which is communicate to the porter or beer and thereby renders it more agreeable to the palate…’

He goes on to tell London brewers that the can somewhat replicate this malt by mixing ‘English made Amber’ with some standard pale malt but that by having this other ‘pale’ malt as used in Dublin, which had superior flavour he states that you can… 

‘… produce a wort if mashed alone of a deep red appearance…’

Well my thoughts on this are pretty clear, if this unique malt was being used by porter brewers then was it possibly being used by ale brewers too? Perhaps mixed with a little ‘real’ pale malt but either way it would have produced an Irish ale that was amber red, and unique to Ireland - an ‘Irish Red Ale’ even, although different from what the new definition and usually stated recipe of course. But this surely helps with my case that there were malt-focused red ales in this epoch too, but they were different to what went before and what came after? (It is also worth mentioning that our brewer/author persuaded a London maltster to replicate this uniquely Irish(?) malt and market it under the name 'Hibernia' ...)

We need more evidence that this of course and with a dearth of information on Irish malting we will fall back on Alfred Barnard and his volumes on ‘The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland’2. Barnard did not tell us much about the actual details of the beers produced by the Irish breweries that he visited but his recording of a visit to Plunkett Brothers, the famous Dublin maltsters, around 1890 is one of the only records regarding what was being malted in Ireland around this time that I am aware of.

Barnard does indeed list some of the ‘numerous’ malts being produced by the Plunketts and those include ‘black, candied, amber and high dried malts, all of which are shown in tall glass vases bearing labels related to the history of the product, etc.’ He was particularly taken with a ‘golden brown malt’ that was used for ‘both ales and stouts, where flavour and richness of quality are desiderata.’ Elsewhere in his report he mentions the candied malt again and states it is ‘sweet-tasting’ and also states that ‘this make is peculiar to Plunkett Bros., and is used in conjunction with pale malts, for public house mild ales’ and that ‘it imparts a delicious aromatic smack to ales'.

These are all quite interesting as malts go but I do not think they can be our elusive amber-ish malt that our brewer speaks of, as these seem to be used in addition to other malts. So although they also seem to be unique to Dublin, and Barnard with all of his travelling and visits had never heard of them, they are probably not exactly what we were looking for even if they do deserve more research, especially that candied malt, and they may be relevant, which I will get too later.

But further on during his visit Barnard visits a separate maltings on Cork Street and discusses the ‘preparation of amber brown malt made by a very old-fashioned process’ using oak chips to fire the furnaces to achieve this colour, and no doubt a unique flavour. Could this be our elusive malt? Indeed it might be - or perhaps a variation of it - and if nothing else it shows that if Barnard was commenting on them as he was, then Dublin maltsters seemed to be malting to different specification than their English counterparts, even if they did export their malts over to there.

So if Irish ale brewers were using this amber brown malt - even if it is not the one in the brewing book - and perhaps adding that candied malt to it, which from how it is listed in order after black and before the amber must mean that it was quite dark and therefore would produce something that to my admittedly limited thinking would be an ale that to the modern eye would be classed as a red ale, even if it was used as only part of the grist.

So are these malts the proof of 'red' ales existing in Ireland in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century at the very least? Well sadly we do not know for sure, but with all of those mentions of amber ales above, plus the amber brown and candied malts that Barnard seemed so taken with, I find it hard to believe that either by themselves or as a mix they were not used in brewing ales at some point - perhaps for those lovely sounding ‘public house mild ales’ he mentions!

Another very important detail is the importance of those malts and their impact on the beers being brewed and given the tone of both the brew instruction book and Barnard’s praise of the quality and aroma of the malt I find it difficult to believe that malts would not be show-cased by the breweries supplied with these malts for the production of their 'everyday' ales. The malt would surely be the most important ingredient flavour wise, with the hops taking the backstage roll.

Given all of this can we finally say that there were malt-forward, reddish ales being brewed in Ireland in this period? I am quite convinced that these beers existed, but possibly focussed on the east coast and - ironically - within 'The Pale' around Dublin, although perhaps in other major cities too as per the Cork references above.

By the way, this idea that Dublin and its environs were fonder of darker ales is reinforced by a small note in a brewing record for Perry’s brewery in Rathdowney in Co. Laois that stated that certain ales were to be darkened for the Dublin market - with caramel colouring in that case I believe. Indeed, Perry’s used caramel, invert sugars and malt extract in some of their beers in at least the early part of the 20th century. Some of which, from my own attempts to replicate these beers, changed them into something almost reddish brown in colour.

I am aware that this is mostly based on pure conjecture, but just to reiterate, I do believe that given the evidence above that there were unique - malt-wise at the very least - Irish red ales. These were similar in colour and possibly taste to the modern versions of red ales although probably stronger flavour wise, certainly more so than the known macrobrewed versions. The malt, and recipes in general, would probably have been different from what I know of those beers produced today too.

These Historic Irish Amber Ales - I think I prefer that term - would have just been another part of our rich and varied range of beers, alongside pale ales, milds and IPAs. They have no connection with the ales of ancient history I discussed in the previous post, or at least I cannot see a link back to those versions that can be in anyway provable, and I still feel that they have no link to those of our very recent brewing history, even given what I have said in the last few paragraphs.

But we did have ‘red’ ales, which I think we all knew already anyway, right…?


Part III is here.

(Please let me know of any errors you see in this piece and I will do my best to rectify them - or argue my case.)

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Martyn Cornell said...

By coincidence I just acquired a pdf copy myself of that notebook you mention by the anonymous journeyman/consulting brewer which mentions the "pale" malt that would give a deep red wort - there is a copy in the archives of A Well Known Large Irish Brewery, but I was told by the person who gave it to me that I couldn't reveal where it came from. I see you date it from 1872 - however, as Stan Corran, the late archivist at G**nn*ss, pointed out, the book cannot be that early, as it mentions the "little steamers" that the brewery used to take casks from the wharf to the ships further down the Liffey, and they did not start until some time after that date - the early 1880s, I believe. I would agree, though, that the mention of that "dark" pale malt is significant, because it suggests that the easiest "pale" malt to find in Ireland in the late 19thC, at least, would indeed give you a reddish ale if used on its own.

I wouldn't tie in any mentions of amber ale to "Irish red ale", however, simply because amber ale is so frequently mentioned in Britain down the centuries, and appears to be a common description - there are four mentions of "amber beer" in the Vade Mecum for Malt Worms from the late 1710s, for example.

Finally, "red" mentioned as something apparently undesirable is probably the infection brewers also called "foxing", because the worts turned a reddish colour.

Liam said...

Hi Martyn,

My version of the book is annotated by the author and they have changed the date printed to 1879 but I think that is just when it was added to by the author, Guinness themselves have PDF that claims that those steamers started around 1873 - I must investigate further! I also need to do a better read of it but I have brewed an XX stout - very roughly - from the recipes ...

I'm still of the opinion that there were unique, Irish amber ales that were reddish so that an Irish Red Ale did exist then, even if not the modern iteration, but I appreciate and understand your point. It's a really tricky area to talk about and I'm not sure if there are right or wrongs to a lot of it, but more to come soon. I just wish that Ireland had more brewing records...

Thanks for all that!